Who Is Enforcing Civil Rights in Arkansas: Is There a Need for a State Civil Rights Agency?
Findings and Recommendations
The following findings and recommendations made through the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to state and local officials are submitted in accordance with the provisions of Section 703.2(e) of the Commission’s regulations calling upon Advisory Committees to “initiate and forward advice and recommendations to the Commission upon matters which the State Committee has studied.”
The Arkansas Advisory Committee believes that these recommendations based on the information gathered during this study will strengthen equal opportunity efforts, improve the effectiveness of Arkansas’ civil rights laws, and assure citizens of Arkansas that civil rights protections are adequately enforced.
Arkansas is one of several states that have not established a state statutory human rights or human relations agency with authority to enforce state human and civil rights laws. The Committee’s review of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 revealed that the act is not substantially equivalent with federal laws, rules, and regulations in the areas of prohibited age and disability discrimination in employment; and age, religion, and familial status discrimination in housing; and fails to provide for an administrative enforcement body to receive and process complaints in accordance with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) procedures, which require remedies and judicial review of agency actions.
In the absence of a substantially equivalent state law, complainants must file with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for employment discrimination and HUD for housing discrimination.
The Arkansas Act has not spawned a significant amount of litigation. Some participants believe the weakness of the Arkansas Act contributes to its lack of use by plaintiffs and their attorneys. Only two cases have been filed under its jurisdiction, both unsuccessful.
The Advisory Committee recommends that the State Legislature of Arkansas amend the Civil Rights Act of 1993 to make it substantially equivalent to federal laws and regulations and establish a human rights agency that is an arm of state government allowing the state to retain authority to address civil rights disputes and issues within Arkansas. A substantially equivalent law would make Arkansas eligible for federal funding with agencies such as HUD and EEOC. Other funding may be available through cooperative agreements with other federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. A state human rights agency may bring many benefits such as faster case processing; provide an opportunity for education and training in civil rights; and effective and efficient administration of civil rights laws.
General powers and duties of such an agency should include, but not be limited to the following:
receive, investigate, and pass upon charges of unlawful employment, housing, and public accommodations practices anywhere in the state;
hold hearings, subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony, and require the production of documents related to discrimination;
cooperate with the federal government and local human rights agencies;
attempt to eliminate unlawful employment, housing, and public accommodations practices by means of alternative dispute resolution, and persuasion;
develop and maintain programs that build positive relations among communities and enhance problem-solving skills through the use of education and training; and
require that every employer, employment agency, and labor organization subject to its jurisdiction make and keep such records relevant to the determination of whether unlawful employment practices have been or are being committed.
The Advisory Committee recommends that appropriate state officials review and consult with other state governments that have substantially equivalent civil rights laws.
Although representatives of the business community say there is a sizable group of skilled and aggressive civil rights attorneys in Arkansas, that remains to be seen. Representatives of community and civil rights organizations report that complainants are often either unaware of where to file discrimination complaints or do not have the resources needed to identify and obtain legal representation. Complainants consistently find it difficult to secure legal counsel due to cost or the unavailability of civil rights attorneys or attorneys willing to litigate such cases.
Most of the participants at the fact-finding meeting believe the lack of information on where to turn for legal assistance has had a detrimental effect on civil rights enforcement in Arkansas.
The Advisory Committee recommends the Arkansas Bar Association and other legal institutions develop a list of attorneys who specialize in or will accept civil rights cases. This list should be used to refer potential plaintiffs to appropriate legal counsel and be distributed to relevant community and civil rights organizations as well as members of the general public for their use.
The Central Regional Office has developed a “Where to Turn Guide for Civil Rights Assistance” (see appendix D), which also may be distributed and used by the public. Copies are available upon request at (913) 551-1400.
Public awareness of local and state government civil rights agencies and community-based organizations as to what they do and the means by which these agencies can be contacted is very limited. According to persons interviewed, most citizens do not know that there are state civil rights protections and what these protections are. Local and state officials, as well as the agencies that may be able to assist potential complainants, have not adequately publicized the availability of their services and developed effective coordination among themselves or with the various constituent groups.
Concerted efforts must be made statewide and within local communities to establish meaningful coalitions and partnerships to address civil rights and race relations. A strong liaison with a wide range of community organizations such as the local chambers of commerce, churches, civic organizations, and civil rights groups must be initiated.
There appears to be a lack of coordinated leadership efforts at all levels with respect to civil rights and race relations matters in Arkansas.
The Advisory Committee urges the governor to take the lead in establishing constructive dialogue on race relations and civil rights in Arkansas. Clearly with the surge of Hispanic and Asian populations in Arkansas over the past 10 years, the state will have to become proactive on civil and human rights to address the needs and interests of its diverse citizenry. This dialogue should start with a statement of the governor’s vision for reducing discrimination and building bridges of understanding among different groups.